Posted on May 15, 2018

Antifa on Trial: How a College Professor Joined the Left’s Radical Ranks

Alan Feuer, Rolling Stone, May 12, 2018

Shortly after Donald Trump took office, the college town of Berkeley, California, found itself at war. Three violent protests broke out in the city within three months of Trump’s inauguration. In early February, a riot erupted at its famously liberal university as masked anti-fascists from the movement known as antifa attacked the student union center and stopped the alt-right agitator Milo Yiannopoulos from delivering a speech. Four weeks later, a second group of anti-fascists descended on a local public park, coming to blows with a raucous gathering of the president’s supporters. It seemed at the time that Berkeley had again become what it hadn’t been in more than 50 years – a battlefield for radicals. But the third event, Patriots’ Day, a “free-speech” rally planned for April 15th by a broad array of far-right groups, was poised to be the biggest battle yet.

Protesters from both sides showed up early that day, slowly filling Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park, a landmarked greensward in the middle of the city. The police had cut the park in half with a barrier of orange plastic mesh; the left-wing demonstrators made their way to one side, the right-wing to the other. Kept at bay by riot cops, most of the participants were passionate but peaceful. A throng of Berkeley liberals, carrying signs and banners, squared off with a band of their MAGA-hatted rivals, many of whom were shouting “USA! USA!” and waving American flags. {snip}

Early in the fray, a group of antifa combatants, clad in ninja black, had ducked into no-man’s-land and pepper-sprayed an alt-right partisan in a Roman-era gladiator helmet. That set off a series of aggressive scrapes between the anti-fascists and some members of the Rise Above Movement, a group of white supremacists who had shown up wearing skull masks. For the next few hours, as marchers waved signs, the militants in the crowd scuffled at its edges in probing skirmishes. But at 3 p.m., there was an explosion deep in right-wing territory – some would later say it was an antifa M-80 – and the skirmishes erupted into a brawl. The men from Rise Above charged across the antifa frontline: People were body-slammed, punched in the face, kicked in the gut. Tear gas filled the air and the park became a swirling sea of fists and sticks and pipes. As a helicopter shuddered overhead, the park’s perimeter gave way and the conflagration spilled into the streets. Unable to contain the melee, the police withdrew and a three-by-four-block section of the city was consumed by open war.

Amid the chaos was a brief, but brutal, scene of violence. Out on the street, a young anti-fascist dressed in a hoodie, his face obscured by a bandanna, swung what seemed to be a large metal bike lock squarely onto the skull of an unwitting alt-right demonstrator. The victim was a 20-year-old college student, Sean Stiles, who had made the trip to Berkeley from his home in Santa Cruz. Though Stiles had been consorting with the men from Rise Above, the bike-lock attack was unprovoked. Stiles had been arguing with two young leftist women about illegal immigration; when he was hit, he simply put his hands on his head, which started gushing blood, and stumbled off as his assailant disappeared. {snip} According to the Berkeley police, Stiles was one of 11 people injured at the rally. There had also been 20 arrests – but the man with the lock was not among them.


As soon as the protest ended, the trolls and hackers who used the site launched a fevered search for Stiles’ assailant – a suspect they took to calling “Bike Lock Guy.” {snip}

By April 17th, two days after the battle in the park, the 4channers had compiled a list of “Bike Lock Guy Identifiables.” The man they were looking for was five-feet-six or so, slimly built and had worn a hoodie, dark jeans, black gloves, a black backpack and knockoff-Rayban sunglasses. When one /pol/ user theorized that “given his footwork,” the suspect might belong to a martial arts or boxing gym, another posted a list of local facilities. When the hackers ran the evidence they had – partial photographs of Bike Lock Guy’s unmasked eyebrows and “nasolabial” angle – through an image search, it came back with a hit: a 28-year-old Bay Area college professor named Eric Clanton.

Clanton was a perfect target for /pol/. He was not just a professor, but an ethics professor who taught philosophy and critical thinking at Diablo Valley College in the East Bay suburb of Pleasant Hill. In a detail that provoked the chat board’s sardonic ire, his work encompassed “restorative justice from an anti-authoritarian perspective.” Once /pol/ had found Clanton’s name, its hackers found his OkCupid account, discovering that he had described himself to suitors as a “gender-nonconforming” sapiosexual interested in “helping to precipitate the end of civil society.” They also published the home phone numbers and addresses of some of his closest relatives. “Poor little terrorist snowflake,” one 4channer wrote, “about to get melted.”

But /pol/ was not content to sit on its scoop. On April 20th, Milo Yiannopoulos broke a bombshell story on his website. Topped by photographs of Clanton, the site announced that the Internet had identified “the antifa rioter who weaponized a giant bike lock.” One day after the story ran, the Berkeley Police Department got an email from the Alameda County sheriff’s office; it had been sent to the sheriff’s anonymous public tip line. “Recently,” the email read, “there has been an individual assaulting people with a U-Lock at various rallies and events in California. After intensive investigation a group of concerned citizens has identified the suspect as Eric Clanton.”

Attached to the email were a half-dozen video clips of right-wing marchers on Patriots’ Day being clubbed with a lock by a young man in a hoodie, black pants, black gloves and a black backpack. Though the Berkeley police had no idea who had sent the trove of evidence, they seemed to take it seriously. Within two days, detectives had obtained a photograph of Clanton from the state DMV. According to investigative documents, the photo showed that Clanton’s nose, jaw, hairline and facial hair were at least similar to those of the bike-lock attacker.

The police began surveillance on Clanton’s house in San Leandro, a few miles south of Oakland. {snip} A strike team broke into the house and found Clanton standing in the middle of an upstairs bedroom. When they searched the room, they found a canister of bear spray, two flip knives, metal knuckles, Rayban sunglasses and a Tupperware of psilocybin mushrooms. They also discovered a Billy club stashed inside Clanton’s car.

By 3 p.m., Clanton was in custody at Berkeley police headquarters. {snip}


{snip} Since Trump first stepped into the presidential race, antifa’s frontline fighters have been engaged in near-constant conflict. They have sparred with skinheads in California, punched a neo-Nazi at Trump’s inauguration, shut down speeches by xenophobic ideologues and fought against the preservation of Confederate-era statues. Almost from the start, the right has demonized antifa followers as cartoon villains. The left, meanwhile, has split over the movement and its use of violent tactics. As white supremacists and proto-fascists have re-emerged across the culture, many progressives have embraced antifa’s cause, though others remain wary of its eye-for-an-eye approach, concerned that it could merely serve to inflame right-wing extremism. {snip}

When I flew to California to speak with Clanton three months after his arrest, he told me he had granted the interview only because he’d already been outed by the criminal-justice system. {snip} Unlike the far right, which despises but often engages with the press, antifa activists tend to shun reporters. For security reasons, they avoid revealing their identities, mask themselves during illicit operations and typically communicate through encrypted chat apps like Signal. {snip}

I met Clanton in a conference room at his lawyer’s office in Oakland. Though he had been charged with felony assault, there was no outward sign of the violence that the bike-lock attacker had evinced on video. {snip} In his blue jeans and preppy sweater, he was pensive, full of halting pauses and obviously frightened by the possible 11-year sentence he was facing. (Clanton is scheduled to be in court next month for a hearing that could decide whether he pleads guilty to a lesser charge or goes to trial.)

He immediately told me there were things he wouldn’t talk about: antifa’s tactics, its hangouts in the Bay, any specific groups or individuals. He was also adamant that he not be represented as a spokesman for a movement that has none. Antifa is not a cohesive group with a top-down leadership. It is structured horizontally, with autonomous local cells that act independently in cities across the country. While there is often cooperation among its chapters, there is no central antifa authority. {snip}

In the United States, the movement’s origins can be traced back to the 1970s and ’80s, when neo-Nazi skinheads started making inroads on the punk scene. I{snip} sMore recently, in an effort to fight institutional racism, a kind of proto-antifa joined forces with Black Lives Matter in its serial protests against police brutality.

All of these strands – anti-racism, anti-capitalism, anti-authoritarianism – have come together in the struggle against Trump. Drawn from a diverse array of backgrounds – labor unions, anarchist clubs, communist and socialist political parties – the groups of radical leftists that have aligned themselves with antifa’s ideals have come to the conclusion that the president, and the extremists who have flocked to him, present the closest thing to a fascist threat the country has seen in decades. {snip} “It took a decade or so for the sort of social and political situation in Germany to normalize anti-Semitism such that it was viable for things to happen the way they did. And I think that the alt-right building power in the streets is the sort of beginning of the same sort of normalization.”

I heard the same from every follower of antifa I spoke to: In an echo of 1933, a virulent strain of nativism is ascending in the West as political leaders, from Warsaw to Washington, have sought to reorient state power toward white populations and blame the failures of the economic system on refugees and immigrants. {snip}

Beyond street-fighting, antifa members also write exposés on the methods and movements of far-right leaders; host anti-fascist conferences and workshops; and tout ideals about fostering sustainable, peaceful communities – tending neighborhood gardens and setting up booths at book fairs and film festivals with literature on everything from Native American sovereignty to Sacco and Vanzetti. But their chief means of beating back the neo-fascist threat is “direct action,” the tactical term for using force to deny extremists a platform from which to spread their rhetoric. “You can’t reason with fascism – it’s irrational,” Ciccariello-Maher says. {snip}

People come to antifa through different channels. Clanton’s channel was academics. {snip} It was only when he left for grad school in 2013, heading off to San Francisco State, that he finally found a language for his politics. He started reading anarchist zines and theorists like Errico Malatesta in between attending seminars on the prison system.

Far more alluring than his classwork, though, was the Bay Area’s robust community of activists and organizers. Clanton started spending time in Oakland, the nation’s “riot capital,” where queer folk, militants of color, Marxist academics and tech-bro-hating anarchists were protesting Google buses and mass incarceration. “I felt like my politics had a home,” Clanton says. {snip}

Oakland’s radicals were particularly focused on police brutality, and Clanton’s first taste of violent protest came that summer after George Zimmerman was acquitted in Florida of killing Trayvon Martin. {snip}

Within a year, he had reached a deeper level of engagement. In November 2014, a grand jury declined to indict the cop who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and this time Clanton joined the angry mob that flooded downtown Oakland, with some in the crowd rioting and looting for nearly two weeks. Soon after, Clanton took part in another massive protest when Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who killed Eric Garner in New York, escaped prosecution. {snip}

Marching against the police directed Clanton’s energies against white supremacy and what he described as “the structural violence of the state” – and set him on a path toward antifa. {snip}


But then, in June 2015, something brought him off the sidelines: Donald Trump rode a gold escalator into one of the strangest — and most overtly racist – political campaigns in recent memory. Trump was the embodiment of everything that Clanton had been fighting: {snip}

A few months into the campaign, Clanton started noticing recruiting posters for Identity Evropa – a California-based neo-Nazi group that would later fight in Berkeley – on both the U.C. and Diablo Valley campuses. Around the same time, Trump was having trouble disavowing David Duke, a former grand wizard in the Ku Klux Klan, and three protesters were stabbed at a violent Klan rally in Anaheim. Things were getting worse, but Clanton says the situation did not seem ripe enough for action yet. “At that point,” he explains, “we weren’t seeing right-wing guys with sticks and bats coming into our neighborhoods.”

In fact, most of the violence then was taking place at Trump’s campaign events. {snip}

By the spring of 2016, the anti-Trump forces started fighting back. Much of the pushback came in California. On April 26th, left-wing protesters scuffled with the right at a city council meeting in Anaheim; a few days later, leftists tossed eggs at Trump supporters in San Jose. Then, on June 26th, the Traditionalist Worker Party, a neo-Nazi group from Indiana, held a march in Sacramento with the Golden State Skinheads. {snip} A group called Antifa Sacramento organized a countermarch, arranging carpools for its members, readying medics for the injured and setting up a bail fund for those who got arrested. The neo-Nazis’ permit allowed them to march in a park outside the domed state capitol at noon. The two sides clashed almost at the moment they arrived. Within minutes, one antifa fighter was stabbed. There were fistfights, stick attacks and six more knifings.

“Personally, I’ve always wondered whether nonviolence was a better means,” says one anti-fascist, a friend of Clanton’s who gave her name as Lou. But Sacramento, Lou explains, “cemented for me that these people are willing to use violent measures {snip}.” She adds: “These are punchable people, these are people who should be punched.”

{snip} Antifa, he tells me, had been watching the right expand for months, but Sacramento was the first time that weapons had been used as the two sides came to blows. “That’s a moment in which things escalate,” he says. “It’s like an ‘oh, shit’ moment in which things start to seem really serious.”

Trump’s inauguration was another. Shortly after 10 a.m., as the president-elect was preparing to take his oath of office at the Capitol, a crowd of several hundred black-clad anti-fascists formed two miles away at Logan Circle. Over the next half-hour, the antifa column traveled 16 blocks, the authorities say, its members smashing windows at a gas station, a Starbucks, a bank and a Bobby Van’s steakhouse. After the police arrested dozens – journalists and legal observers among them – splinter groups veered off to commit more mayhem: They set fire to a limousine, and one antifa marcher, who remains unidentified, slugged the neo-Nazi Richard Spencer in the face. {snip}

During Trump’s transition, the extreme far right had a public coming out. {snip}

Anxiously watching as all of this unfolded, the antifa website published a report in January claiming that these various activities were evidence of a “growing far-right which is attempting to leave the confines of the internet and enter into the streets in the wake of Trump taking power.” The move offline had already had consequences. On Inauguration Day, an IWW union worker was shot at one of Yiannopoulos’ speeches in Seattle; five days later, fights erupted when Yiannopoulos appeared in Boulder, Colorado. Now he was scheduled to speak at Berkeley, where he planned to announce a new initiative that dovetailed with the president’s agenda: an effort to abolish “sanctuary campuses” that harbored illegal immigrants. {snip}

On February 1st, before Yiannopoulos arrived, more than 1,000 protesters gathered in the dark at Sproul Plaza in the heart of Berkeley’s campus. A small detachment of antifa activists moved among them. When the anti-fascists started throwing rocks at the police, the protest spiraled into a riot. Windows were smashed; barricades were trampled; people hurled fireworks; gas-powered spotlights erupted into flames. The administration canceled the address. All told, the vandalism caused more than $100,000 in damage.

The campus riot was a signal event, escalating the antagonism between the anti-fascists and their right-wing rivals, and shaping the contours not only for the battles that would soon be fought in Berkeley, but also for those that would take place later in cities like New Orleans; Portland, Oregon; and, ultimately, Charlottesville. {snip} In the wake of the riot, critics on the left also had qualms about the canceled speech. But wielding free-speech rhetoric as a cudgel, the right – especially in Northern California – began to organize around it. Leaders emerged who couched the conflict with antifa as a patriotic defense of liberty – a gambit that attracted to the fray many conservatives who until then had been silent. Some of these conservative recruits were not just eager to oppose their new enemy, but to physically confront it. They went into their basements, grabbing pipes and two-by-fours, and readying an ersatz armor of football pads, plywood shields and motorcycle helmets. As rallies were announced that spring, a right-wing fighting class was born.

“Free speech is being used to [cover for] a very violent message,” says one anti-fascist. “What they’re trying to protect is hate speech and calls for genocide.”

The first time this militia took the field was at March4Trump, a free-speech protest held in Berkeley and a dozen other cities on Saturday, March 4th. In advance of the event – the first to occur in Civic Center Park – Kathy Zhu, one of its local organizers, tweeted, “If you want to defend your liberty and your rights, then march with us on Berkeley.” Antifa had closely tracked the gathering, and a company of its activists was planning, as one of its communiqués said, on “confronting fascists in the streets.” {snip}


If the Yiannopoulos protest served as a wake-up to the right, March4Trump had a similar effect on antifa. What disturbed the movement most was that, under the rubric of defying the left, the right was starting to bring together its disparate factions. A coalition was emerging, ItsGoingDown wrote, of “libertarians, ancaps, armed militias, brownshirt alt-right enforcers, the ‘patriotic’ Tea Party crowd, and alt-lite Deplorables without alienating any of them.” {snip}

“The energy began before Trump, but there’s no question that the deplorable subculture that developed around him and the free-speech rallies were something new and different,” says James Anderson, the editor at ItsGoingDown. “It looked very scary, like the far right could do whatever it wanted and get away with it. {snip}”

Anderson admits there was concern in antifa circles that the free-speech rallies were a trap of sorts, designed to provoke the anti-fascists and expose them to both public censure and police reprisals. But when a new group on the right, the Liberty Revival Alliance, took to YouTube in April announcing that it would hold another free-speech rally in Civic Center Park, the anti-fascists decided to respond. The Patriots’ Day protest was going to feature a list of celebrity speakers – among them Kyle Chapman, a commercial diver from San Mateo who had swung his stick with such ferocity at March4Trump that he was christened with the nom de guerre Based Stickman. {snip}


“I think that calling these people anarchists or antifa isn’t good,” Chapman answered in his bright-red “USA” cap. “I think we need to start calling them what they are – these are domestic terrorists.”

As Patriots’ Day approached, the stakes kept getting higher. First, the Oath Keepers, a gun-toting nationalist militia, agreed to provide security, calling on “three percenters, military veterans, patriot police officers, bikers, and all other brave American patriots” to help protect the rally against “radical leftists who use violence” to “shut down and silence free speech.” When several neo-Nazi groups – among them, Rise Above and Identity Evropa – announced that they were also going, antifa sounded the alarm. {snip}

On the advice of his lawyer, Clanton won’t talk about Patriots’ Day. {snip} The Bay Area was the liberal bastion where he had found his place in the world after fleeing Bakersfield. For months, he’d watched in outrage as the right showed up like insurgents in the Bay, r{snip}.

“I found that personally fucking offensive,” Clanton says, “because the Bay Area is my home. {snip}”

After Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and the Sacramento Nazis; after Donald Trump, Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannopoulos and Kyle Chapman, it seems Clanton had finally had enough. Which may be why, when the Berkeley police searched his house on the day of his arrest, among the other things they found was a U-shaped metal bike lock.


{snip} While peaceful demonstration might serve to dispel antifa’s critics, Clanton says he isn’t interested in giving up his safety, or that of his friends, to seize the moral high ground, which he dismisses as a notion created by the “narrative class.” Nor does he put much stock in the right’s high-minded assertion that it’s fighting for free speech. “Was [Yiannopoulos coming to Berkeley] defensible in terms of free speech? It is an open question,” he says. “But what is not defensible is outing undocumented students in a way that, if not directly advocating, suggests or sort of incites violence against them.” Lou is more direct: “Free speech is being used to [cover for] a very violent message. What they’re trying to protect is hate speech and calls for genocide.”

{snip} it would not be hard to argue that Donald Trump has already accomplished more than any recent president to imperil both the day-to-day welfare of the country’s most vulnerable residents and the various democratic norms that have long protected even the powerful from authoritarian rule. At the same time, he has reanimated a class of extremists, some of whose explicit goals are to rid the nation of its nonwhite races. Sitting with our coffees, Lou says, “The inherent truth to fighting fascism is that we just want people to be good to each other, and fascists aren’t good to each other.” The only way to end the fascist menace, she adds, is by “smashing it immediately.”

{snip} I ask Clanton if he thinks there is any meaningful distinction between a white supremacist like Richard Spencer and a Trump supporter who wants to build the wall. After one of his academic pauses, he acknowledges the two are not the same. The real difference, he suggests, is “who is wielding bats and sticks and shields and knives, and who is not?” But does he apply those parameters to the unarmed right-wing marcher who was set upon just 30 minutes earlier in Berkeley and kicked by antifa protesters as he lay on the ground?


{snip} “The world is much stranger and more complicated than you seem to realize. I’ve tried to have open conversations about my politics, but mostly I’ve sheltered you from them, another mistake. Well those days are over now and it’s time to do the hard work of finding actual common ground if we want to have a relationship. It’s time to have hard conversations about where you stand in this messy world and which side you’re on.”